We headed south-east, aiming to reach the closest point to the Mediterranean Sea. Handling the boat takes some getting used to. Let your eye wander from the helm for more than a few seconds and you can end up hitting a bank or another boat. Fortunately, the speed limit on the canals is only 8km/h, imposed to protect the delicate ecosystem of the canal from the wash that faster speeds creates.
The slow pace suits our novice steering. It also adds to the camaraderie. Passing boats, walkers and cyclists all exchange friendly nods, waves or shouts of “salut!”
Not far from the village of Capestang, we notice a sign on a tree proclaiming “wine here”. We moor the boat and take a gravel path down to a charming winery called Domaine de Guery – one of many that dot the canal.
We follow the “ring bell for the owner” instructions, and two minutes later the gregarious proprietor pops out to give us a wine talk and tasting. These local wines are superb, yet only cost a few euros per bottle.
The scenery surrounding the canal is beautiful, often flanked by vineyards stretching out on either side. Incredibly, this entire 240km waterway is man-made and was created back in 1680 after 15 years of shovelling earth by 12,000 men and women.
The rented bikes included with the boat increase our exploration range. In Beziers we ride up to the Gothic cathedral of St Nazaire, which towers over the surrounding area. The next day we cycle the 2km to the Med’s beaches from Port Cassafières.
Although canalside restaurants are plentiful, we mostly end up cooking on board and eating on deck, having foraged for supplies in local shops or at tiny stalls found by the locks we pass through.
Evenings along the canal are quiet, with most other boats occupied by families or couples. So at Capestang we walk to the town square and spend the night making friends with the locals over shots of Cointreau in small bars.
What makes canal cruising so special is the slow pace – making you appreciate small pleasures. At the end of a week of chilling, we are glad to travel home by TGV and Eurostar, which makes for a far more relaxing – and greener – journey than flying.
On the train, reflecting on our trip, I recall a line from the ’80s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Other places to see
Explore the charming towns and villages that line the Somme in the Picardy region in the north of France.
The Saône is one of the most attractive rivers in France, with rolling rural scenery and many possibilities for swimming and biking.
The heart of the Burgundy region, which winds gently through the valley of the Yonne, with vineyards, orchards and forests en route.
Close to the bustling town of Montpellier in the south of France, only a thin strip of white sand separates the Mediterranean from the canals and lagoons in the region.
Once a vital artery for the carriage of salt, brandy and paper, the waterways in the Cognac region now boast a delectable and tranquil way of life.